Dn. Michael Hyatt · January 10, 2009
As Dn. Michael begins exploring the Council of Ephesus, he observes some commonality between Evangelicals and Orthodox in the "cult of the Saints."
Deacon Michael Hyatt: I got this book this week from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, part of their popular patristics series called “The Cult of the Saints” by St. John Chrysostom. Is anyone familiar with this book? It’s really fascinating because it talks about the cult of the saints and the role of the saints in the church. And this was written in a really pivotal time in the history of the church, and it was written by one of the most venerable fathers of the ancient Church and it’s really his sermons with a really interesting introduction. But this morning I got up, and I’ve been following all weekend with a heavy heart this whole situation with Ted Haggard, the pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. And I say with a heavy heart because I suppose it would be easy to say, well, that’s an evangelical problem and they’ve got all kinds of problems, but really it kind of besmirches the name of Christ every place and hurts all of us as Christians. And frankly, as Orthodox, we’ve had our own issues. We’ve had bishops fall from time to time and priests. So it’s not like we’re exempt from the effects of the fall. We’re not. We have our own issues. But I did think—I was watching this news story this morning, NBC, and they were talking about the story.
So I’m kind of getting dressed in the midst of all this, and I walk by this book “Cult of the Saints” which I just read the introduction to. I’m not very far into it. But I got to thinking, the truth is, Evangelicals have a cult of the saints also, as well as Orthodox. This is an inescapable concept. And like I said before, iconography is inescapable, liturgy is inescapable, tradition is inescapable. You know, you may call it by something else, but all of us have these things whether you’re Orthodox or Catholic or evangelical or even the most anti-liturgical of all, maybe like the Quakers or other Anabaptist groups have their own kind of liturgy that they observe. But here’s where the cult of the saints among Orthodox and Evangelicals are similar, I think.
First, both elevate Christians as examples. So, there’s nothing different there. Both believe that the saints, these exemplars of the faith, have some special favor with God. Both elevate their images, project their images. I don’t know when the last time you were in an evangelical church was, but I’ve been in some mega churches where it’s not just an iconostasis. It’s jumbotrons, and there’s usually several of them with images projected on them. And both Orthodox and Evangelicals ask for the prayers of those that they elevate as examples to the flock.
Those are the similarities—now, here’s where the differences are. (This is just a sidebar. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Third Ecumenical Council per se.) The Evangelicals often de facto canonize these examples before their life on earth is finished. Therein lies the problem. In the Orthodox Church, we wait until their life on earth is finished. And then we look at the whole context of their life and frankly how they finished was more important than how they started, and so they are elevated based on that. I will never forget when… Some of you know I’m in the Christian publishing business, and one year I was taking one of my friends through the Christian booksellers convention. As we walked through we saw all these autograph booths of these well-known Christian leaders and their images prominently displayed on these booths and everything. One of my friends was kind of scandalized by it all—he’s a Protestant, but he said, “Wow, I’ll give you Orthodox this. At least you wait until they’re dead before you canonize them.” (Laughter)
The other thing that I think is healthy about Orthodoxy and historic Christianity is that we really point to a great cloud of witnesses. When you walk into this temple this morning, don’t miss the instruction, theological instruction, that’s presented by the iconostasis and the icons and the sense of proportions because the thing that you’ll notice overwhelmingly is that Jesus is the focal point. He’s the focal point both as you look towards the iconostasis in the front, back in the altar. He’s the focal point in the ceiling, in the Pantocrator icon and then it’s not just that we have one saint, one example, human example that is displayed on jumbotrons, but we have a cloud of witnesses, a multitude of saints that are present: St. Raphael and St. Catherine and all these saints that are there on the iconostasis and around the church. I think too often—and this can happen in an Orthodox church and it has happened in the history of the Church—that the focal point of the faith becomes one man.
Part of what I like about being in a liturgical tradition is that it’s really not about one man. I mean, I love Father Stephen. I love his homilies, but frankly that’s about 20% of the service. If he doesn’t give a homily or if he doesn’t show up, everything still goes on. And again, I’m not diminishing the importance of the preaching of the Word of God. I think that’s a critically important aspect of liturgical life, but I’m saying that it’s more than that. There’s a bigger context. And for us as Orthodox, the Eucharist is sort of the apex of the service. Another thing I thought of I was comparing and contrasting, and thinking about the cult of the saints, is the people that have been used by God in the history of the Church.
Let’s start with Jesus. Whenever he did something that would bring him fame, he usually did two things. He told the person, for example whom he healed, don’t tell anybody. Don’t hire a PR agency. Don’t write a book. Don’t broadcast this. Kind of keep it to yourself. And that usually didn’t work, but then he would depart to a lonely place. He did not seek fame, and I think it is also true that, in the history of the Church, whenever you look at the great saints of God they hid from fame. They realized that fame was not a good thing. When the saints would become famous was usually after they had run the race, and after they had reposed, and after they had gone on to be with the Lord. And I think part of that is that our frames are not built for fame. I’ve known lots and lots of Christian leaders through my career in Christian publishing, and lots of Christian artists for that matter. And I don’t ever see fame as a good thing. And yet fame is one of the things that our culture extols as one of the most important virtues.
So we’ve got all kinds of shows about famous people and all kinds of tabloids and all kinds of things… There’s this voyeurism. We want to see these famous people. And part of the problem is that we also—and I don’t know if this is a cultural thing or not, I hadn’t really thought about this—but we tend to like to elevate people and then watch them fall. It’s like the giant morality play that the rest of us vicariously participate in. I think it’s good as Orthodox Christians [to realize that our Orthodoxy] doesn’t make us immune from the effects of the Fall. It shouldn’t give us any cause to gloat or be proud. We ought to be saddened and grieving as a result of what’s happened in Colorado Springs like anybody else, but I’m just grateful that fame for us is still not something to be sought. The Orthodox virtues, the biblical virtues of humility and others-centeredness and focus on God’s glory and his work is a good thing.
So, any comments you want to make? Like I said before, this is all kind of a sidebar before the lesson today. Yes, Joanne?
Joanne: When we were up in Indiana at a very Evangelical church, it just hit me so hard. There were no Christian images in that whole church except for the jumbotrons… the band up in front that was elevated on a platform, the female drummer that sat behind a clear plastic screen. She was front and center. There was no cross either on the building or in the building. There was no picture of Jesus anywhere, not even in the Sunday School rooms. I didn’t even see a Noah’s Ark.
Dn. Michael: Wait a second. No Noah’s Ark?
Joanne: No. I was just like, they’ve done it! They’ve bleached it all out! It could’ve been a very nice elementary school or community center. I just came away from there like, “Ugh, these poor people.”
Dn. Michael: I think it points to kind of the point I was making earlier. Iconoclasm is impossible. You can smash these icons and replace them with other icons, but iconography is inescapable. Look at what happened in Soviet Russia. You know, the Communists ripped down all the images of Christ and the saints, destroyed them, burned many of them. And what did they erect? Pictures of Stalin, Lenin, you know all these other icons. Same thing happened in China. Same thing in Korea, if you’ve been following the story in North Korea. The image of Kim Il-Sung is everywhere. And don’t they refer to him as “dear father”? So it’s inescapable. As people made in the image of God, still having freedom, we can choose which icons we’ll venerate, but we have eyes because we’re visual.
Q: So, the church that Joanne was in? Describe the iconography there.
Dn. Michael: Well, in the absence of intentional, deliberate iconography of things that we ought to elevate—you know, Christ, the angels, a reminder to us that it’s not about now, and it’s not about us, and there’s something greater than what we see—there’s this unintentional, not well thought out iconography that replaces it, and it’s almost… you couldn’t make it up if it weren’t true. You know these giant images of the pastor as the focal point and the band and the things that we think are more culturally… some people think are more culturally relevant. Does that make sense? Jeff?
Jeff: I just want to say that the screen is a really big part of it, as a guy that’s just come out of the Protestant world. I mean, it’s amazing. There is actually an openness to imagery, the Gospel Music Association and these groups are talking a lot about “let’s bring images back” which I say is a real open door for Orthodoxy, and I’ve had a lot of good conversations with artsy people in the Christian scene because they like images now. But as you said, I think there’s a lot of discussion about “what do we put on our screens?” That’s the new stained glass of the Protestant world, really—the screen. You can do beautiful things and art and trying to go to nature or to candles or icons that they don’t realize what they are, but obviously that’s what they would say is their art, that’s their iconography primarily in a lot of cases. But we can speak to that now and be open to the possibility of well, what do you put on your screens? I don’t know. It’s a good way to talk.
Dn. Michael: It is. And I think it does create a bridge for us to be able to say that. And by the way, when I contrast—Gayle was kind of getting on my case this morning about this, but when I contrast Orthodoxy with Protestantism, I’m not doing it for the sake of denigrating Protestants. I want to be respectful. I used to be Protestant myself. I work with mostly Protestants. So, it’s not about that. I just think that there are some things that are a part of the history of the Church that ought to be a part and would be a wonderful corrective to what’s going on today, and we have a lot of those treasures in the history of the Church. Not because you found them, Jeff, or because I found them, but because they were given to us as a gift, and now we have a stewardship of those things that we can share with other people that I think can help them find a path in the midst of the increasing nonsense that’s become American Christianity. Mark?
Mark: One of the things you see or don’t see in a lot of Protestant churches is when they do have a cross, there will be no representation of the body of Christ on it. And when I’ve spoken with some people about this, they say that’s intentional because it’s supposed to show Christ isn’t there, he’s risen. But I think there’s a real loss not only of our own sort of understanding of the suffering and what went on in the crucifixion but a loss of the body of Christ being with us which could even be expressed in Eucharistic terms. I think there was a bit of a reaction against that if you will when Mel Gibson’s “Passion” came out, and I read some interviews with Protestant leaders where they said that they recognized that there was a problem with a missing body, so to speak. But I have yet to see suddenly a lot of Protestant churches looking like Catholic churches with representation of the corpus and things such as that.
Dn. Michael: Yeah, that is an interesting issue, and I think in many ways it’s a reaction to Roman Catholicism and sort of that medieval piety that got focused—and Mel Gibson’s a good example of that, really was focused on Christ’s work on the Cross and to the exclusion of—I don’t know about you but when I watched “The Passion of the Christ”, it was an incredible movie. It really moved me emotionally. I wept, but at the end of it, [where is] the resurrection? As an Orthodox Christian, I guess it’s like, “What? That’s it?”
I have only seen the movie one time. I didn’t seen the final cut. I was invited to a screening of it where Mel Gibson was actually present. He was sitting right in front of me. There were about forty of us watching this. And then he stood up and asked for input, and so I just told him: I said, you know, “Great movie, loved it. It’s phenomenal what you’ve done. But the resurrection is so important. This has got to be longer. This is something that’s more significant in the weight of this.” And he listened, but evidently didn’t do anything about it. But that’s not part of his piety. Part of our piety is, yes, we do focus on the suffering of Christ, particularly during Lent and during Holy Week especially, but we really focus—and you’ll see during this season of Pascha following Holy Week that the corpus is not on the Cross. It’s taken down. It’s a reminder to us all that he’s not here but that he’s risen. So I think there’s both/and, but it’s almost an abstract symbol in many churches. It doesn’t really relate to the historicity of Christ coming being incarnate, dwelling among us and suffering and so forth.
Alright. Just a quick review and then I want to get to that ever-popular topic of Pelagianism. I know it’s a thorny issue for many of you. Just kidding. I’ll tell you what it is in a minute. The Third Ecumenical Council was probably the most controversial of all the councils, depends on who you talk to, but it was controversial in its own time and it was controversial in subsequent centuries. It was called by the Emperor Theodosius II who was the grandson of Theodosius the Great who had called the Second Ecumenical Council. By the way, I had said last week that Theodosius the Great was known for making Christianity the official state religion of the empire. Constantine merely made Christianity legal, one option among many, but Theodosius the Great actually made it the official religion, and so there was an active campaign to suppress and wipe out the non-Christian pagan religion of the Roman Empire.
The Third Ecumenical Council was held in Ephesus in Asia Minor in 431. It was basically called to settle a debate between Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria and Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople. And they had been having a war of words in letters that had really kind of ripped the empire theologically. About 200 bishops were present. Cyril was a very aggressive advocate of the Orthodox position, and he was so eager that he started the council really before all the bishops got present, and there were sort of were some off sides here initially that had to get fixed later. The atmosphere was very heated.
But there were two issues. One was Nestorianism. Actually three issues, Pelagianism is the third. We’ll get into that in a minute, but Nestorianism emphasized the human nature of Christ at the expense of the divine. And so you’re going to see this back and forth for a few centuries. You know, there are those who are not quite sure what to do with the divinity of Christ and there are those that are not quite sure what to do with the humanity of Christ. And where this will get great clarity is in the fourth council, the council of Chalcedon where the fathers really dial it in with some specificity. But Nestorianism taught that Virgin Mary had only given birth to a man, Jesus, not God the Word. And so what Nestorius—and this is where he lost politically as opposed to theologically. He was preaching that it was wrong to refer to the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, as the “Theotokos” which by this time had already been practiced in the Church for at least two centuries. We have ancient Greek prayers that go back to the second century referring to Mary as the Theotokos. Common practice. He said that wrong and that we should only refer to her as Christotokos, the birth-giver of Christ as opposed to the birth-giver of God. He did not mean by that, as I pointed out last week, he did not mean by that that somehow the Virgin Mary was the fourth person of the Trinity or in eternity past had given birth to Christ the second person of the Trinity, no. This is all about God’s economy in time and space. And so, it was really about: who was that person in her womb. Could we say that that person, certainly Jesus of Nazareth, yes, but was that person very God of very God? That’s what the whole debate was about.
The way Nestorius taught it was that the Word only dwelt in Jesus as in a temple. It had the effect of teaching, though he would not say this, but it was confusing at best, that two persons dwelt in Jesus Christ. It was kind of a sort of ontological or theological schizophrenia. You know, you have two people dwelling in the same body. We have drugs for that today. But it is not clear whether or not Nestorius himself was Nestorian in this sense. I tried to point that out last week, but certainly his followers and they were legion and they continue to this day, many of them believed what the council condemned and that was this idea of two persons dwelling in this person Jesus Christ and de-emphasizing the divinity of Christ. I said that last week during the Reformation, the charge of Nestorianism was also leveled against the Protestants by the Roman Catholics and I said the body of Christ, when we use that phrase, to what do we refer? Because certainly there’s the physical body of Christ, the Incarnation, his flesh and blood, but there’s also the elements of the Eucharist which we also refer to as the body of Christ, and then there’s the Church. There’s the sense in which we’re the body of Christ, joined together with Jesus Christ we become kind of mystically his body as well. And there’s an obvious relationship between these three.
And I said, with regards to the Eucharist, consistent Nestorianism would imply that the elements are only bread and wine, they remain bread and wine, and at best, Christ is present spiritually, or he may be present with the elements, but the elements themselves are not the body and blood of Christ. And as Orthodox Christians, we believe that that bread and wine is the very body and blood of Christ. We don’t try to explain how it becomes such, we don’t know. I grew up in the West under the scholastic theologians and the whole doctrine of transubstantiation, but we don’t go that far. You can, by the way, find some Orthodox theologians writing in response to Rome that we use the language of transubstantiation. But I think that’s a foreign concept imported into Orthodox theology as it was engaging the West but it is really not part of our tradition, part of our history. And by the way, the Orthodox view is that in the mystery, they are both. We can refer to the bread and the wine or the body and the blood. It’s both. Then with regard to the Church, consistent Nestorianism would imply that the Church is only a human institution. Christ is present, as in a temple, but the Orthodox view is that in the mystery, the Church of Jesus Christ is united to Christ and is his actual body. OK?
Then we talked about this whole doctrine of Christotokos last week and what it meant and I think for me, and maybe for some of you, I think that was difficult coming into the Orthodox Church when you saw that reference to Theotokos and what did that really mean? And when someone explained to me that it means the birth-giver of God, then I kind of got it, but it made me uncomfortable. And then I read in the Third Ecumenical Council that they had used this terms and it was even more ancient than that, so it gave me a little comfort. I understood what was at stake, why the term was used, that the Third Ecumenical Council was affirming what had been the ancient and venerable tradition in terms of their view of the mother of God.
Let’s talk about Pelagianism. This is almost a footnote to the work of the council, but the council did condemn Pelagius—who was, by the way, a British Christian theologian who lived in Rome in the fourth and the fifth century. And what he taught was this: that original sin did not taint human nature. He taught that the human will is still capable of choosing between good or evil without divine aid. Thus while Adam set a bad example, there’s no sense in which his sin passed to his children. Hang with me here for a minute because this really messes with the doctrine of the Incarnation because he also taught in a similar way Jesus set a good example for us to follow. He was kind of like the supreme moral teacher. But we have the full moral responsibility for our own salvation. Whether you are ultimately saved according to Pelagius and what the council condemned, is dependent on what you do. I don’t know about you, but if that’s true, I’m in deep weeds, and the council recognized that.
Now, Augustine in North Africa, Hippo to be precise, waged a war against Pelagius and wrote a number of treatises and preached against Pelagius and really kind of defended what the Church had believed about our role in salvation. Now, as Orthodox Christians, we kind of believe he over argued the position a little bit. And here’s how so. As Orthodox Christians, with Augustine, we believe that the effects of original sin passed on to Adam’s children. So, nobody’s born into the world without the effect of that sin. However, the Orthodox distinguish between original guilt and original pollution. In the West, the discussion was framed and almost exclusively juridical language, the language of the court, you know, lawyerly language that we committed a sin or a trespass. There, therefore, is a penalty to be extracted, and Christ paid that penalty and all that kind of language. But there is also a second part to original sin that the Orthodox didn’t buy into the original guilt. We’re liable for our own sins. I’m not liable for Adam’s sin. But I am affected by the moral corruption that’s passed from Adam to his children and onto us so that there’s a corruption that we inherit.
With Augustine and against the Pelagians, Orthodox Christians also believe that we can’t be saved apart from the grace of God. You cannot save yourself. Impossible. Here’s where the difference is. Orthodox believe that our salvation is synergistic, and by that I mean this: God initiates, and we respond. It’s like a dance. And while these two things can be differentiated, they can’t be separated. So that faith and works are two sides of the same coin. Grace and works are two sides of the same coin. Faith without works is dead. If you have your Bible, I had somebody actually quote this to me this week and was extolling the fact that we’re saved by grace and that not of ourselves in Ephesians 2. “But by grace you’ve been saved through faith and that not of yourselves it is a gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.” And we revel in that as Orthodox. We believe that as Orthodox that we’re only standing by the grace of God, but if it weren’t for the grace of God, none of us would’ve found the Church or would participate in the means of grace or participate in the sacraments of the Church. None of that would be possible apart from the grace of God. But what so often happens when people read those two verses, they shut their Bible.
But verse 10, the verse that immediately follows this 2 that I just quoted says this: For we are for—you know, it’s connected here—“for we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). So we weren’t saved by our good works. You know, the grace of God appears to us in Christ Jesus in the sacraments and all the things that the Church gives us as means, but the works are part of it. And we’re created for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. This is normal Christian living: that we would manifest good works. If we’ve been truly transformed by the grace of God, we have to work out what God has worked in. Another passage of Scripture too is Philippians 2, and I think outlines this kind of divine/human synergy and what we believe as Orthodox. Philippians 2. This is the verse that’s not underlined by modern Christians, but it says, verse 12, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12)
There is a responsibility. To the extent that Pelagius emphasized personal responsibility is right. He just took it too far. And like most heresies, they tend to want to be rational and exclude two things that you have difficulty on a rational basis holding together. It’s paradoxical in a sense. You know for us to say that God is both three and one or that Jesus is both human and divine. You know those two things are rationally difficult to hold together, and so as human beings with a limited perspective they tend to overemphasize one to the exclusion of the other. And that’s what Pelagius did. Wanting to emphasize the legitimate place of human responsibility and our role in working out salvation with fear and trembling, he excluded God’s role in the divine economy and the manifestation of grace and the priority even of grace in our lives.
We love him because he first loved us. He pursued us, and we respond to that. But then verse 13, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Verse 13 is the other part of it: for it is God who works in you, you know, the reason you’re able to do this. For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure. God gives us both the motivation and the ability to do his will that’s at work within us. But we have to respond to that. Again, it’s a dance. Christ comes, to use a metaphor, and he woos us, and he invites us onto the dance floor. But we can sit there like a bump on a log and not respond, or we can stand up and enter into the divine dance and be transformed. And that’s really, from an Orthodox perspective, what salvation is all about. We’re being transformed from glory to glory. Robert?
Robert: What was Pelagius’ view of God’s role?
Dn. Michael: God’s role? Jesus came to be an example. You should look at his example and be inspired. Look at his commitment. He died on the cross. He was willing to be a martyr. Kind of like it is in Islam today. He was willing to be a martyr, and we can respond to his example and that ought to inspire us to live a godly life. But at the end of the day, you save yourself. And by the way, I find some Christians, that while they would deny that theologically, live like it’s true. They think it’s their responsibility to save themselves, their responsibility to save their families. It’s not. It’s just not. You have a responsibility, to be sure, but if God was not on our side, if God wasn’t helping us… I tell you, some of you in particular you have small children, and you think that it’s up to you. You can just raise them in a protected environment and everything will be fine. No way. You’re going to find that out sooner or later.
You’re going to do your best as parents. It doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility, but they’re going to confront stuff in our culture and they’re going to make their own choices. And they’re going to choose to either walk in what you’ve given to them or not walk into it. You can give the grace, you can extend the grace. It’s both/and. You need grace as parents. We need grace as Christians. And all that stuff we do as Orthodox Christians to fast and to take the sacraments faithfully and all that, who of us would come to the end of our lives and boast and say we’ve done it all, therefore we deserve heaven. No! At best, we’ve poorly followed what the Church has given us. At best, we’re sinners saved by grace.
Q: With the “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”, I think that’s a message I really got being raised in a Protestant, born again religion. Because after I committed my life to Christ at 10, it was kind of like OK, there you are.
Dn. Michael: Now it’s up to you?
Q: Yes, but I had a good Christian family around me who would take me to church, but it wasn’t until later with the Anglo-Catholic faith and looking at the saints and looking at Christ as inviting me to be with him, and then the Orthodox have this whole way of life out of the prayer and the fasting and the drawing nearer to God that yes, it’s me who can do these things, but it’s God who set it forth and wants me to.
Dn. Michael: Yes, and it equips you to do it. I don’t know if you all could hear the comment, but she said she felt as a Protestant as she came to faith at 10 that—I’m going to put words in your mouth, but you get your fire insurance, you get your certificate. Now it’s up to you. Right? And that’s why it’s so key to understand that from our perspective as Orthodox, salvation is not primarily an event. It is primarily a process. And our baptism, our chrismation is the day we launch. It’s the day we begin, but that’s only the beginning. We enter into a relationship with Christ and over the course of our life we’re being transfigured by his grace and changed into his image. That’s why we fast. That’s why we come to church. That’s why we partake of the sacraments: because we want to grow in grace. We want to be healed. We want to be restored back into that place where Adam was and even above that as we share in the life of Christ. Thank you.